And so, to one of the perceived keystones of modern drama. Along with Beckett’s Waiting For Godot, the 1956 play Look Back In Anger swept all before it and ushered in a new phase in theatre in which angry young men both wrote the plays (John Osborne) and took centre stage (Jimmy Porter). This version is from 30 odd years later and was mounted by Renaissance Theatre, then a relatively new company formed by a young Kenneth Branagh. The play was directed by Judi Dench; I saw the stage production at the time and remember being dazzled by Branagh’s performance, so it was with interest I approached this made for television recreation from 1989.
Educated and astute Jimmy Porter runs a market sweet stall but is clearly disgruntled that his talents are not being put to good use; at the same time he seems unprepared to deploy them constructively. Thus, he takes continual and almost continuous pot-shots at nation, empire, the privileged classes, religion, culture and everyone around him, particularly his wife Alison. She comes from a well-heeled background and it seems to have been a prime motivator that they have married simply to annoy her disapproving family. Now four years on they are stuck in a dingy flat and Jimmy’s anger is mounting. In a series of savage verbal attacks, he reduces her to a mental wreck – only the presence of their flatmate Cliff seems to stop things becoming physical. Jimmy is very much an emotional child who craves constant reassurance and when he can’t get his own way he lashes out and stomps off to another room to practise his trumpet playing it loudly to the point of exasperation. Even when he is not actually in the room he makes his presence felt.
There is no doubt that Branagh’s performance is a bravura one; the set piece speeches are taken at a tremendous pace, as though the man’s thoughts are racing ahead of his mouth. He also shows Jimmy’s fecklessness and neediness as he quickly switches allegiance from his wife to her best friend Helena who ostensibly comes to rescue Alison but clearly has her own agenda. Ultimately Jimmy’s selfish attitude towards life (he is equally as blinkered by dogma as those he claims to despise) drives everyone away and Branagh’s performance also contains a strong sense of the character’s insecurity and despair. This well-rounded performance is matched by the understated characterisation of Emma Thompson as Mrs Porter. Often portrayed as little more than an emotional punchbag, Thompson’s demeanour cleverly suggests that Alison deliberately deploys silence and dogged determination as weapons in their own right in order to frustrate her husband’s will. The base of the emotional triangle in the flat, and the no man’s land of their marital battleground, comes in the form of Gerard Horan’s grounded Cliff in a well defined role that can sometimes be somewhat thankless. Siobhan Redmond provides the spiky catalyst Helena and Edward Jewesbury embodies the old order as Alison’s father.
Judi Dench may not be known first and foremost for directing but she has been adept in drawing out excellent performances. Redirected for the cameras by David Jones and shot in a TV studio the play lacks the urgency and immediacy I remember – it all seems a bit flattened out. What does come across in retaining the use of one set is the claustrophobic atmosphere which charges the drama and fuels Jimmy Porter’s anger and frustration. The drab colours of Stuart McCarthy and Jenny Tiramani’s designs perfectly evoke Britain in the mid-50s especially on a rainy Sunday afternoon when the shops were all closed and pubs and cinemas were not open until the evening, As an aside after watching the play you might cheer yourself up by listening to Galton and Simpson’s pastiche in the “Sunday Afternoon At Home” script for Tony Hancock (click here) which contains some gloriously funny lines (“I thought my mother was a bad cook but at least her gravy used to move about”). In many ways Hancock and Porter are cut from the same cloth and as social commentators would agree on many things.
Thirty years later when this production was mounted Look Back In Anger was something of an historical artefact; another forty years later, so is this TV adaptation. In the late 80s Branagh was, of course, the hot acting ticket of the moment especially when appearing alongside his real life wife of the time Emma Thompson; they married in the same year they were doing this play. Ken and Em, as they were dubbed, were the darlings of the theatre world and the recording is interesting as it captures a moment when they appeared together onstage and reminds us of the star power they had.
Look Back In Anger is available on streaming service Broadway HD. Click here
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